Guest Post 5: The Art of Birdwatching in China by Sid Francis

The latest guest post on Birding Beijing comes from bird-rich Sichuan Province, home to Giant Pandas and a vast array of birdlife, much of which is difficult to find anywhere else.  Sid and Meggie Francis are well known in China birding circles (see their Sichuan thread, including some stunning photos, on Birdforum and also their blog) and since I have been in China I have been following their birding exploits with some envy!  Sid kindly agreed to write a post about his general impressions of birding in China and I know that, if you have ever experienced birding in this wonderful country, you will relate to a lot of what he says!

The Art of Birdwatching in China

As a Brit that has lived and birded China for the last eight years I’ve of course had to adapt and accept the ways of my new home. However an existence around here, especially for those who’ve been raised and groomed to the norms of well-ordered and predictable western urbanization, still throws up a daily array of the highly unexpected. Events that would seem bizarre and even eccentric back home – can seem almost daily out here.

Eccentric China even creeps into our birding lives – usually giving the birder an extra dose of problem solving activity. Birding in my neck of the woods – Sichuan – is so rich and rewarding, but as the old adage goes – nothing good comes for free. Those complications associated with living in China sometimes feels like the price I pay for my birds.

To hold onto full birding sanity I recommend the China based birder reflects on their situation; in my case the reflection follows three major principles.

The Three Principles

1. Scientific reflection – this is for the birder who can disassociate the situation through a single focus point of the bird and just the bird; get that tick. Back home one uses this kind of discipline in situations such as gull watching on city rubbish dumps – areas so horrible that no sane person could ever extract any aesthetic pleasure from such a visit.  Of course for the focused enthusiast the birding scientist takes over – the simple recording enough to convert any dump into a pleasant and rewarding location. Developing China can also throw up like situations. I suppose an example would be birding at sites that have been developed for tourism and now suffer vast crowds of screaming visitors.  Amazingly, if habitat is left, birds survive and habituate to these situations, but be prepared for enjoyment killing factors that can rival anything a refuse dump can throw up – crowd noise that sometimes rivals Wembley on FA cup day, can be enough to make many birders run!!!! And as a strange and interesting creature bedecked in binoculars, scope and long lenses expect the masses to start watching you – the twitcher becoming twitched. The scientist, who can detach themselves from annoyances that could drive others a little crazy, always wins out in these types of situation – but for those of a less devote and moderate nature, principle number two could be of more use.

2. Philosophic reflection – A big problem with birding in China is finding areas that are not in the process of being turned into some sort of huge muddy hole!  I only get to my further flung birding haunts once or twice a year – and am always in fear of finding a new, habitat destroying, work project in progress – even in the reserves.  To survive frustrating situations like these I search after my inner philosopher, who works on the following principle – as much as I would like the developing world to come to a stop, at least in respect to ravages of habitat loss, I’ve got to be realistic and realise that change is the ongoing factor that has molded and formed all from the year dot!

However the philosopher in me also tells me that we can influence man-made change, which brings us onto a less documented Chinese change – a more informed public opinion with regard to the environment – something that hopefully will be the foundation for real protection of Wild China.  Wildlife is becoming part of the daily media.  Chinese TV has a channel that broadcasts wildlife documentaries; programmes are being made on Chinese birds, news stations run stories on wildlife topics and have exposed illegal wild-bird trading and from the wealth of on-line activity we can see that the numbers of birders and bird photographers are growing – and many young people are developing new concepts with regard to protecting their natural heritage.

Although things, especially when one takes into account the pace of the new development, can look awful here, the philosophic approach helps us to realise that all is not black and that there is hope for the future.  But however scientific or philosophic we are in our outlook sometimes the odd case of insanity means we can still find ourselves throwing up our hands to heaven for help – which brings us to………….

3.Religous reflection – when you’re close to giving up you can always pray.

A friend of mine told me about a comment she heard from a Chinese acquaintance when she commented on how cruel she thought the local practice of caging birds in tiny cages – which was answered with – “but if they weren’t put into cages how would they learn to talk?”

This kind of attitude turns me towards the religious – but luckily I don’t run into that kind of person on a daily basis and don’t have to resort (that much) to prayer – maybe just the odd gaze to heaven after a mad encounter with a local driver or two!!!!

If all truth is told, one of my pleasures with China birding is overcoming the obstacles – those bad roads , exploring past the development and habitat destruction to find that wealth of new birding areas that lie along those small country tracks.  After living in China, going back home is totally boring; here I have the Tibetan Plateau a few hour’s drive from my home.  Eccentric China can be a total pain in the butt – but thinking over those eight years in this country, using my powers of reflection,  I can also see its eccentricity is a factor, when having beaten back those daily obstacles that too often are thrown in front of us poor birders, that can make this country such a fascinating, “don’t give up”, challenge.

Lesser whitefronted goose. One of our craziest sightings was the second Sichuan record – the first, from the 1950s, was of a dead bird in Chengdu meat market. Amazingly we saw this bird without having to resort to the usual scanning of vast skeins of winter geese – but from the window of a village hotel that overlooks a dirty little river!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Needless to say that seeing this rare bird in such circumstances was quite a surprise – it was also a surprise for Meggie that she was required to dangle out of the third storey window (with me holding on) to get our pictures. One of the advantages with wildfowl in China – no captive escape ID problems.
Red-faced Rosefinch. Not all our birds are as easy as a quick gaze and dangle out of the hotel window. This little blighter is the world’s highest nesting passerine. Me and Meggie go slogging around at a lung-busting 4,500m for these – anybody stupid enough to want to have a go is welcome to join us. At least at this altitude we can escape the crowds.
Eccentric Sichuan. Where else can you go to a Tibetan Temple and find the monks have spray painted all the White Eared Pheasants with pink and blue lines. At Bangbu Monastery on the Yunnan/Sichuan border the monks feed these birds – which makes them very easy watch. But it took us ages to find these two birds that had escaped the attentions of bird graffiti artists.
My birding Sichuan. This picture speaks more than a thousand words over why my birding in Sichuan can be so fantastic.
Our Jeep in the mud. Not such a pretty Sichuan scene. This is not a farm track but a main road!!!
A cause for prayer. Local parking practices can be regarded as small miracles of driving.

About the author:  Sid and Meggie Francis are a Chinese English birding couple living in Chengdu.  For the last 4 years birding has been their main occupation but they also work as conservation and bird tourist consultants.  Before going 100% into birds they have dabbled in all sorts, including: Falkland Island Shepherd, Red Cross refugee worker, Kinndergarten Teaching and Civil Engineering. However they are soon to embark on their biggest project – this summer they will be parents for the first time. 

4 thoughts on “Guest Post 5: The Art of Birdwatching in China by Sid Francis”

  1. Great post! It’s very helpful for giving a broad picture which is helpful for anyone coming for a visit or trying to understand what are the attractions of long-term birding in China. Of course language is no problem for you guys, but English not being a lingua franca here is one other aspect which visitors should be aware of.

    Sid and Meggie, you are really pioneers out on the edges, and the information and pictures that you and others are providing are both helpful and inspirational. Best wishes on your “new project”!

  2. Sid and Meggie,

    Yes, it really requires practice to “tune out” the distractions while birding…. but it’s always worth it make the effort to be out there, distracted or not.


  3. One of the most bizarre birding experiences I ‘enjoyed’ at Wild Duck Lake was watching a flock of Greater Sand Plovers feeding on an open area whilst dodging motorised beach buggies, a herd of horse riders and a few Chinese bird photographers in 4x4s (they were focusing on the Lapwings instead of the Greater Sand Plovers!). The whole experience was a little crazy but I am constantly pleasantly surprised at how quickly birds can adapt to seemingly nightmarish disturbance, especially on migration. If one can “tune out” the distractions, the birding can be very rewarding (the Greater Sand Plovers are rare visitors to the Beijing Municipality).

  4. Hi Sid and Meggie, great post

    After five years birding in China, I found that some situations require a combination of scientific, philosophical and religious reflection all at the same time, sometimes amounting to a zen-like, deep-breath, ok-you’re-a-guest-in-this-country attitude, such as when you are carefully stalking a shy bird in the forest in the early morning only to have someone let out a series of loud screams and shouts nearby (often as they are walking backwards up the hill) – this seems to be a popular activity in early mornings in quiet places in China. That said, the Chinese are very disciplined about staying on the main trails, so even in crowded places, like Xishan in Kunming, birding small side trails can find you quietly watching a foraging White-tailed Robin only a few yards from the crowds.

    I also agree about the trend of increased awareness of nature and birds – witness the growth of birdwatching societies in various parts of China. I meet more and more people interested in birds and am happy to spend time showing people birds. However, some of the “development” activities are truly frustrating. Sometimes it seems no natural place can be left “unimproved” I can only hope that as people appreciate nature for nature’s sake, there will be in increased call to protect wild places and wild species in China

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